Yoadan TILAHUN is a repat. Formerly Human Resources Analyst at the headquarter of the World Bank, she is now the founder and managing director of Flawless Events, an Ethiopian event company. With 85% of her clients based in Ethiopia, Yoadan focuses on corporate events and also provide services to various government agencies going from launch of initiatives to VIP events. We had a discussion with her on Ethiopia, her life as a repat and as an entrepreneur.
Inspire Afrika: How should one know the time is right to head back to the continent ?
Yoadan TILAHUN: I don’t know if there is one formula that works for everyone. It’s an individual decision and most of it might be driven by emotional sentiments, more than logical. It’s harder to “start over” and let go of some of the conveniences the western world provides. For me, I have always wanted to return, I never fully felt settled in the US. Coming home for a couple of months gave me that missing feeling back. I felt at home immediately, welcomed and a sense of belonging that is hard to quantify. Every headache, frustration and living without this or that was and is worth it. I am raising my kids in our culture and with them knowing who they are. I don’t have to fear that they will be treated because they look a certain way since everyone looks like them. They are accepted, and they belong automatically. That was important for us as a family. On the work front, I have realized that everything that I do has a much bigger impact than anything I did in the US. My work matters, my contribution matters. It’s not for everyone, it’s a personal decision, everyone has their own path to life, but I can say it’s not as scary or bad as it may seem.
I.A: What are some of the skills you learnt in the USA that strengthened your ability to start this business ? What are those you felt you needed to reassessed and adjusted in Ethiopia ?
Y.T: The United States gave me discipline of work, respect for any kind of work, ability to express myself clearly, confidence in my knowledge, resourcefulness, and accountability. Also I’ve learnt how to ask for help when I need it, to focus on customer and resilience that anything is possible, even if that thing might look different than expected. I had to take things for what they are in Ethiopia and stop comparing them to the United States. I had to increase my patience, listen between the lines, pay more attention to body languages as our culture is not as straight forward. Things are not as black and white.
I.A: Moving back seems to be all the craze at the moment within the African Diaspora, what do you think are the key benefits of returning to your home country?
Y.T: First, opportunities! There are so many things we can do to make a difference through our work. Secondly, the feeling of “I matter”: You can adapt, take advantage of the culture you already know and do things differently that will add value to the sector. You can navigate two worlds perfectly well – stop making assumptions and having expectations and take it one day at a time. We were born and raised on this land – the connection is natural. The social connection and network is also amazing – you get to work hard and play hard. There is a balance between social and work life. And finally, you get to rediscover this beautiful continent – rediscovering your own country as an adult with different perspectives and also traveling around the continent is awesome!
I.A: Let’s discover Ethiopia through your eyes: What are the places to visit in Addis-Ababa? What activities should one tourist should do in Addis-Ababa? Apart from Addis-Ababa, is there another city to visit in Ethiopia?
Y.T: So I call my city Addis Abeba – which means new flower. Ababa is father. We have fascinating debates on the spelling of our city. Anyway, the city is growing insanely fast – there are neighbourhoods I don’t even know anymore and the number of people who live in the city is growing like crazy! We have no idea how large the city is anymore – we can only guess. What I hear a lot from visitors is the sense of “peace and ease” they feel while in Addis. People are deeply religious, so I think it gives it that under-current feel. Piassa is an old neighbourhood full of cafes, shops, jewellery shops, old cinemas and many more historical buildings. That area still feels like the city I grew up in – well worth the visit! You should not leave Addis without having some coffee – whether you have it with milk or espresso style – once you have coffee in Addis, you should be able to taste the difference and understand our pain when we travel around – nothing hits the spot the same way! Get up early morning and watch people running but more importantly going to churches – the discipline is awe inspiring. Go up to Entoto and visit the churches and also enjoy the birds eye view of the city with its mountains and budding skyscrapers. Shop in small boutiques for authentic Ethiopian items and definitely do not leave without having some injera!
I.A: After the crash of an airplane of Ethiopian airlines, some Africans have been very severe with the company on internet. There is even a video of passengers, requesting that the plane should do a pilot test before entering the plane. Do you think Africans are too strict with each other?
Y.T: Oh really? I haven’t seen those. I have seen more support to Ethiopian Airlines from Africans more than anything else. There might be few who feel entitled to act a certain way. Would they act the same way if it was a western airline – I doubt it. But I will take it as we feel entitled when we feel at home so they take Ethiopian airline as their own. We are likely to be more critical of each other – maybe because we expect more of one another.
I.A: Any advice for any entrepreneur willing to launch an event company?
Y.T: My advice for an event company or any other type of company is as follow: try to be an expert in it, learn and stay on top of industry trends. Understand it so well that you can innovate in the industry and set the trend for others. Know why you want to get into the business and figure out your strength in the business – are you the creative, the finance person, the operations manager or the strategic thinker? You can’t be all so figure it out early. And at the end, do it extremely well! Oh and if it’s an event company, trust me, it’s not fun nor sexy – it’s exhausting!! It’s not all party and glamour, it’s more grey hair and mini heart-attacks! J